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Entrepreneurs Corner: Excellence in real world and classroom

Hopper learns the ropes, starts successful business as Petal High School senior

In a previous column, I wrote about the Mississippi Council on Economic Education (Mscee.org), and the good work they’re doing in schools around the state. Coming from nowhere, MCEE has emerged as one of the top programs in the country, in terms of providing advanced economic training to teachers, and in turn, to students at participating schools. It goes without saying that this is an important mission from the perspective of the Mississippi business community.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the results of the program first-hand. I met with Gary Graves, a teacher at Petal High School, and Nicolet Hopper, one of his students. Gary was one of the early participants to receive the training and earn the Certified Master Teacher of Economics designation.  Nicolet, a senior at Petal, was a winner of the state business plan competition held this spring.

Petal High School senior Nicolette Hopper has taken a lot from one of her mentors — Gary Graves, a certified Master Teacher of Economic — as she as started her own successful tuxedo rental business.

Petal High School senior Nicolette Hopper has taken a lot from one of her mentors — Gary Graves, a certified Master Teacher of Economic — as she as started her own successful tuxedo rental business.

Gary is beginning his 22nd year of teaching, and has been involved in the entrepreneurial program at Petal for the past four years.

“I’d have to say, the past four years have been filled with great things, but also with challenges,” he said.  “We accept kids in the program who are bright, motivated and eager. They get excited about business, and want to learn and put the learning to work in a real sense.”

And the challenges?

“Well,” he said,  “I’d have to say that they’re also very individualistic people, and achieving a consensus isn’t always that easy. Of course, that’s no doubt true of high-achievers at any and all walks of life.”

Generally, Gary organizes his students into teams and requires them to work together to produce an acceptable business plan. Some of these plans go on to become reality and turn into profit-making businesses.

Nicolet Hopper is one of those bright, enthusiastic students who created a strong business plan and launched a successful enterprise.

“I had worked in my mom’s store off and on through the years,” she said. Her mother, Sonja Hopper, is the owner of the Merle Norman and More store in Petal.

“I guess you’d say that Mr. Graves and my mom were my mentors,” Nicolet said.

She got the idea of an expanded tuxedo rental business to be based in the store, created a business plan for the business, and Formalities Tuxedo Rental was born.  She pays rent for her space in the store, operates the business as a separate entity, keeps a P & L and promotes the business aggressively in the community.

“It’s really been fun,” she said.  “But there’s a lot of hard work, too.”

She found the opportunity when she realized that most people went outside the town for their formal wear.

“There’s a lot of demand,” she said.  “I just thought there should be an easier and more convenient way to meet the need.”

The business was established and grew rapidly under her management, and with the support of Gary and her mother. She promoted with brochures in area schools, on social sites and through personal networking.

“You have to know what you do best, and then just do it,” she said. “I’m good at working with people. I’m a cheerleader, I’m good at public speaking, and I think I have the skills to succeed at whatever I do.”

This wasn’t her first profitable venture, either. She has charged for cheerleading lessons, and will run a cheerleading camp called “Good Cheer.”

“What I learned through the program is that you have to have a goal, and create a plan to meet it. I learned so much about business and finance that is important whether or not someone wants to start a business.  Mr. Graves was just so much help along the way,” she said.

The result of all of this is a live business that is making a profit.

Gary points to Nicolet as one of the strong success stories, “but there are many others,” he said.  Through the four years, he’s had 75 kids in the program, and several have started businesses that became successful.

“I know this program can grow,” he said.  “Around the state, we’ve seen so many good stories, and the more support we can get, the better the results. Even when you’ve got 10 strong kids with 10 different opinions, and the noise level gets high, it’s still fun.”

It’s clear that he takes pride in his success in this program, and he thinks it’s almost a certainty that some of his students will go on to build large and successful businesses in the coming years.

And Nicolet? What does she expect to be doing in 10 years?

“Well, I’m not 100 percent sure,” she said with a smile. “But, I am pretty sure that I will be the boss of something.”

We don’t doubt that.

MBJ publisher Alan Turner can be reached at (601) 364-1021 or alan.turner@msbusiness.com


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